Health, age caught up with Celtics

MIAMI -- Celtics coach Doc Rivers remembers listening to pundits openly opine before his team's 2008 title season about how it would take Boston's new Big Three at least a year to come together. He scoffed at the notion.

"Everyone was saying it was going to take a year, and I was thinking, 'We don't have that,'" Rivers said before the Miami Heat -- in their first year with their own Big Three -- ended Boston's 2010-11 season with a 97-87 triumph Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

"You just don't know with health. Unfortunately, I was right because we really haven't been healthy since that one year."

Indeed, Boston has endured three injury-plagued seasons since that 2008 title and, while this might have been the healthiest Boston had been in recent postseason memory, injuries took their toll. Consider this:

• Shaquille O'Neal, sidelined for the better part of the past four months because of a right Achilles/calf injury, watched in street clothes as Nenad Krstic, who logged back-to-back DNPs in Games 3 and 4, served as the team's primary center for much of the fourth quarter Wednesday (this while Jermaine O'Neal battled a stiff back for much of the night).

Rajon Rondo, the only youthful presence in Boston's starting lineup, was already playing through the pain of a dislocated left elbow suffered in Saturday's Game 3 win, but was also limited throughout Game 5 by a balky back and didn't appear in the fourth quarter of a do-or-die game.

Yes, the Celtics still had their Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. But even with four seasons of experience under their belt, they were no match for a spry and healthy Miami squad that clearly didn't need a year to jell, either.

"Well, there's no excuse [about health]," Pierce said. "You've got to understand, in the playoffs, in basketball, injuries are part of the game and there's no excuses. You can say 'What if this? What if that?' Well, it didn't happen. You can go back in history and say 'What if anything?' Would there be a different result? But it is what it is.

"The good teams, they find ways to win, and that's part of basketball. The healthy teams -- you stay healthy, that's big, and unfortunately we had our ups and downs with our health this year, which kind of made for some [inconsistency], but I still believe that we had enough out there to win."

But on Wednesday night, the Celtics simply didn't. Boston's calling card over the past three seasons has been an ability to take over games late. And that escaped them in this series.

In fact, in three of their four losses to Miami, the Celtics had opportunities to win late and failed each time. In Game 4, Boston shot itself in the foot with poor late-game execution. In Games 2 and 5, the Celtics were hanging around, only to have a better team storm away in the final minutes.

ESPN Stats & Info crunched the numbers before Game 5 and found that Boston was prone to letdowns at the end of each half, times when Boston's starters logically were at their most tired. Did age play just as much of a role as health in Boston's demise?

"It's a good question," Rivers said. "I don't know the answer. I know we gave a lot in Game 3 and I never felt like we could ever get that effort back from all our guys. And the games did come quick. So I don't know the answer.

"I will say this, I don't believe this team is done, though. We have to add some people. But other than that, I love the guys in that locker room."

Loving your team isn't always enough to win world titles, and that was Boston's only goal this season. The fact that the Celtics boasted a double-digit lead in the first half and were up seven in the final quarter made Wednesday's loss that much harder to swallow.

As Boston's Big Three limped to the finish line, Miami's stars only seemed to get stronger. Dwyane Wade dazzled early on and LeBron James scored the game's final 10 points to key a 16-0 burst to end Boston's season.

"I haven't had much time to think about it, but it's not that we didn't get stops," Rondo said of a fourth quarter that started as a defensive battle. "We couldn't put the ball in the basket in the fourth quarter again tonight. They gave us problems as far as just getting to the paint. Give them a lot of credit, [Wade] attacked all night, and then LeBron caught up and followed. So give them credit; they made their shots at the end as well.

"I think as far as the series, we were in it pretty much every game. It's just, the fourth quarter, they did a better job of running their stuff and making shots, and we didn't."

And that comes down to health and age.

So as the Heat advance to the conference finals, it's another offseason of "What could have been?" for Boston. Even as the team pledged to keep its core intact for another run at a title next season, the Celtics can't help but look back at each of the past three years and wonder if they missed opportunities for even more success.

What if Garnett hadn't been injured in 2009? What if Kendrick Perkins hadn't been injured in 2010? What if Rondo and Shaq hadn't been injured in 2011?

So much rides on health for Boston's roster.

"Obviously, we look at it as probably as a failure this year, not winning a championship," Rondo said. "[Next year], the core will be here, under contract, and we'll be fine."

Fine, as long as they can stay healthy for the duration.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.